Mark Barber is at the ubiquitous supermarket store Tesco. He is a community manager for Leicestershire County Cricket Club, and his job entails drawing kids to cricket. His most delightful experiences occur when a kid, who has been at a recent cricket engagement programme, recognises him at the supermarket, comes up, and says ‘thanks, that was fun’. Not that it happens often. It’s the British Asian kids who come up more often.
At a Nottingham hotel, an Australian fan, who has travelled for five World Cups so far, looks disappointed. “You wouldn’t think a World Cup is happening here? I been to five pubs: football, football everywhere. C’mon mate, there is a World Cup in your f****g country. Embrace it, will ya?”
The apathy has been startling indeed. Airbnb hosts are probably the ones who know more about the tournament than other English people as Asians guests have been lounging on their couches in their living rooms, warming takeaways in their microwaves and asking them whether the television at home has Sky Sports. Almost 99 per cent of the time, they don’t.
“Well, how do you engage with something you can’t see?” Barber is talking about the absence of cricket on terrestrial TV in England. Sky Sports has the rights, pumped in a great deal of money into cricket, but ironically, it has ebbed the interest levels in the game. The rates for DTH services so are expensive that not many households can afford it, and as a result the kids don’t see much cricket.
“If you don’t see, where are your heroes going to come from? I remember the 80’s when West Indian quicks would knock the heads off our English batsmen – it was a spectacle on TV and I fell in love with the game,” Barber says.
Perhaps, a contest against Australia will spike up some interest. It usually does. After nearly a month of the World Cup, the caravan moves to Lord’s for the iconic clash between the Old Rivals. Does the Ashes spike up interest in the community programmes Barber runs? “Yes and no. We constantly do programmes tailored around events – now its the World Cup, then possibly the Hundred (England’s proposed short-format competition), and the Ashes, of course. You can get the kids in but to sustain their interest is another thing altogether. The issue is bigger.”
For a day at least, hopefully, the country will peep at the television to see how England go against Australia. England are at a rather tricky place after their loss to Sri Lanka. They now face Australia, New Zealand, and India and for them to enter the final, they would have to beat one of these teams twice (one of these teams would be their semi-final opponent). In the here and now, they need to ensure they first get there.
If England were stunned by Pakistan’s effervescence, they were let down against Sri Lanka by a lack of plan in the chase and the brilliance of Lasith Malinga, whose belly has led to much amusing GIFs and memes around the cricketing world.
They kept taking the aggressive options that didn’t quite work out—from Moeen Ali to Jofra Archer. Under Eoin Morgan’s captaincy, at least there wouldn’t be any confusion yet. He has backed his players and his attacking philosophy. The rare losses they have had have come when they returned to the old English approach of plodding around. Like against Pakistan in the last Champions Trophy semi-final. Morgan has said they will not play outdated cricket. That he will continue to back his players to fire away.
Why not, especially when that approach has led to a startling consistency. January 2017 was the last time they lost two ODIs in a row. That’s 29 months ago.
An English journalist put a doubt across to Morgan at the media interaction on the eve of the game. Would the pressure of expectations and playing a World Cup at home cloud their minds?
But one wondered if there were enough people watching for any player to feel much pressure? The cricket journalists in England have had the least work so far in the competition. Newspapers are all about football, and they get to squeeze in a piece or two in the dailies. Monday morning papers had England Women’s World Cup football game against Cameroon splashed across two pages; cricket was hidden behind it.
“It’s the traditional cricket watchers who are still the audience. And even that is waning,” says Barber. “The most difficult task for community managers like me is getting a new audience. That is the struggle. Football, yes, and the kids these days are into games and whatever that they do on their phones.”
That’s another feature of the country, worthy of a separate investigative piece by itself. Is there a Pied Piper here, whisking away the kids to a secret place? You hardly see many kids on streets. Never mind cricket grounds. Barber laughs at the query. “Hardly many, are they? True. It wasn’t the situation even a decade or two back. We used to plonk our bags at home after school and head out. Now, they don’t.”
Here is a stat: 71 per cent of adults played in the street or area near their home every day when they were a child, only 21 per cent of children do so today. That figure is from an organisation called “Play England – Freedom to play”. An organisation trying to keep the Pied Piper away. They run projects like ‘Street Play’, ‘Adventure into Sport’ and such.
The absence of kids outdoors has taken a scary turn with political parties trying to use it to feed the fear against immigrants. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has talked about the kids in the context of limiting immigration. “I want to live in a community where our kids play football in the streets on an evening and live in a society that is at ease with itself.”
Channel 4 ran a documentary once on this: What stops children from playing on our streets? The CEO of an organisation called Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, had this to say there: “It’s a great shame that mums are anxious about outdoor play to the point of keeping their kids in front of the TV, but it’s also easy to become misty-eyed about a Hovis advert past, when tiny children were able to roll tins down cobbled streets all day. Truth is, the biggest fear on Mumsnet is about road accidents, and that’s an understandable concern.”
A spokesperson for another charity London Play also shot down Farage’s insights. “We have never heard of anyone saying that immigration is a reason that they don’t let their kids play out.”
The documentary also threw other interesting reasons. Here is one from a parent: “Neighbours would judge us negatively if we let our children play outside unsupervised.” Over a third of parents, in a research, were worried that children would make noise which would upset neighbours.
Irrational fear of immigrants, rational fears of road accidents, and societal-perceptions of what others would think have all led to fewer kids playing outside. “It’s a bit sad and it affects participation and engagement,” Barber says.
Around 4,000 fans, a mixed crowd of various heritages, landed up for Pakistan’s warm-up game at the county ground in Leicestershire. Next game, a week later, didn’t feature Pakistan and about 400 people turned up, says Barber. “The problem is the same in the participation. British Asian kids love to play but don’t end up enrolling for club cricket, perhaps because of the fees, insurance forms, rules, rigmarole, parent’s focus on education … too many variables play a part”.
Throw in a lack of cricket on television and it all adds up to a state where cricket is ailing in the land where it was invented. The Ashes dusts up the memories of the older generation, who influence the younger lot, and interest spikes up for that series. Hopefully, a World Cup game between the two countries would have a similar effect.
There were quite a few questions to Morgan about whether he would ask the crowds to not boo Steve Smith and David Warner. He said that he won’t and would let the people decide for themselves. “Just because punishment was handed out and the two guys served their punishment, doesn’t mean they are going to be accepted back into the cricket community (fans) straightaway with open arms. It will take time.”
All well and good, but hopefully, the English have bothered to go out and buy enough tickets and not get outnumbered by Indian fans even for a game against Australia.